Switch glitch

Tennessee’s switch to online testing starts rough as platform crashes on Day One

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Computers line a classroom at Aspire Hanley Elementary in Memphis as schools prepared to make the switch to online assessments for state achievement tests.

On the first day of online testing in Tennessee schools, a network outage forced students to stop taking the state’s new achievement test, causing a delay in the much-anticipated rollout of the TNReady exam.

Major outages occurred statewide at 8:25 a.m. CST on the MIST platform developed by Measurement Inc., the North Carolina-based company that created the test, according to an email to superintendents from state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

“These outages were caused because the network utilized by Measurement Inc. experienced a failure,” McQueen wrote. “We are urgently working with Measurement Inc. to identify the causes and correct the problem. At this time, we are advising that schools experiencing problems with the test discontinue testing, and return to their normal classes. Please do not begin any new additional testing you had planned for today until the department provides further information.

Due to a lengthy testing window that began on Monday and continues through March 4, it’s unclear how many schools were impacted statewide.

However, in Nashville, 30 schools were administering the test on Monday and six reported glitches, according to Joe Bass, a spokesman for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

Students who had not yet encountered technological difficulties were told to finish the assessment.

District leaders stressed to teachers and parents that the outages were not due to local technology problems. McQueen told superintendents that Measurement Inc. was aware of the problem.

Technology troubles have plagued several states in recent years in the transition to online testing, causing mistrust over the validity of scores and testing platforms.

As word spread about Monday’s outages, critics of the new test — and the inclusion of data from the tests in teacher evaluations — quickly cited the technology glitches as an indictment of the State Department of Education.

#TNReady crashes statewide … is TDOE still perplexed why boards across the state are asking for grace for teachers and kids from scores?” Knox County school board member Amber Rountree tweeted upon learning the news.

Tennessee Education Association President Barbara Gray quickly blasted the state Education Department’s handling of the transition, citing concerns about the state’s capacity to accommodate so many students on the server at one time, as well as concerns about local districts having enough resources to complete the testing.

“It is unacceptable to have this kind of statewide failure when the state has tied so many high-stakes decisions to the results of this assessment,” Gray said. “Our students and teachers have enough stress and anxiety around these assessments without adding additional worries about technical issues.

Gray called on the state to grant at least a one-year waiver from including TNReady scores in teacher evaluations, although state officials have said that districts have discretion whether they choose to use that data this year on personnel decisions.

Last week, Department of Education officials told reporters they were prepared for widespread technology difficulties.

Chief Information Officer Cliff Lloyd said that he wasn’t as concerned about major failures such as servers crashing. “Those big things are easy to fix,” he said at the time. “I’m worried about small things that can occur on certain operating systems in certain conditions.”

As part of the state’s contingency plans, districts can request paper-based tests if technical problems persist and also can administer TNReady later than the state-assigned testing window.

 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated from an earlier version.

star power

Matt Damon’s latest role: The voice of an education documentary featuring Tennessee testing

PHOTO: Sarah Mondale, Vera Aronow

Tennessee’s debate about over-testing is a cause célèbre — or at least a cause drawing the attention of Matt Damon.

The movie star narrates a new documentary that explores the privatization of public schools. It features Nashville’s Gower Elementary School, as well as board member Amy Frogge of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

Nashville school board member Amy Frogge is featured in the documentary.

Called “Backpack Full of Cash,” the 90-minute film was released in late 2016 and screened this week at the Nashville Film Festival.

“I got involved in ‘Backpack Full of Cash’ because I believe that every kid should have access to great public schools,” Damon said in a statement. “… I got a great education in public schools, and my mom is an educator so I know just how hard teachers work every day.”

The segment featuring Gower Elementary was filmed in the spring of 2014 as students prepared for TCAP tests. A scene showing students practicing multiple-choice questions is followed by a comment from education writer David Kirp: “I’ve sat through those classes. I could barely sit still for 42 minutes. They’re asked to do it for 12 years.”

The film details a long list of tests that Gower students take during the school year, ending with four days of state-mandated testing.

Filmmakers Sarah Mondale and Vera Aronow said they chose to focus that part of the film on Tennessee because of the state’s 2010 Race to the Top win of $500 million in federal funds, which was spurred by a slew of reforms with test data at their core.

“(Tennessee) was a leader in the use of data and testing to drive education — a key part of market-based school reform,” Mondale said.

The movie also covers charter schools in Philadelphia and school vouchers in New Orleans. Both have been hotly debated issues in Tennessee as well.

The film’s title pokes at an argument often made by school choice advocates: that public money should follow students, no matter what school they attend.

“This idea that education is nothing more than the sum of public money that follows kids around is exactly the argument that the film is trying to refute,” Mondale said.

Since the movie’s filming, Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has twice convened task forces to reduce testing, resulting in the elimination of required eighth- and tenth-grade tests. After test times ballooned in the first year of TNReady in 2016, the state shortened the English test this year. (For fifth-graders, it’s dropped from 226 minutes during the last year of TCAP in 2014-15, to 195 minutes this year.) Meanwhile, testing in math has gotten longer (92 minutes in 2014-15 vs. 115 minutes this year), and science has stayed the same. This year’s social studies test is a shortened field test.

McQueen says her department has taken pains to make the current tests more engaging, while emphasizing that the best test prep is “good teaching,” not tedious practice questions.

“Backpack Full of Cash” is a co-production of Stone Lantern Films Inc. and Turnstone Productions. You can find more information about the film and how to watch it here.

BACKPACK FULL OF CASH Official Trailer from Stone Lantern Films on Vimeo.

 

Testing Testing

“ILEARN” is in, ISTEP is out — Indiana legislature approves test set to begin in 2019. Now awaiting governor’s OK.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

A little more than a year ago, lawmakers made the dramatic call to “repeal” the state’s beleaguered ISTEP test without a set alternative.

Friday night, they finally decided on a plan for what should replace it.

The “ILEARN” testing system in House Bill 1003 passed the House 68-29 and passed the Senate 39-11. Next, the bill will go to Gov. Eric Holcomb for him to sign into law.

The new test would be used for the first time in 2019, meaning ISTEP still has one more year of life. In the meantime, the Indiana Department of Education will be tasked with developing the new test and finding a vendor. Currently, the state contracts with the British test writing company Pearson.

House Speaker Brian Bosma said he was very pleased with the compromise, which he thinks could result in a short, more effective test — although many of those details will depend on the final test writer.

However, a number of Democrats, and even some Republicans, expressed frustration with the testing proposal.

“The federal government requires us to take one test,” said Sen. Aaron Freeman, a Republican from Indianapolis. “Why we continue to add more and more to this, I have no idea.”

For the most part, the test resembles what was recommended by a group of educators, lawmakers and policymakers charged with studying a test replacement. There would be a new year-end test for elementary and middle school students, and High schools would give end-of-course exams in 10th grade English, ninth-grade biology, and algebra I.

An optional end-of-course exam would be added for U.S. government, and the state would be required to test kids in social studies once in fifth or eighth grade.

It’s not clear if the plan still includes state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick’s suggestion to use an elementary and middle school test that would be “computer-adaptive” and adjust difficulty based on students’ answers.

The plan does make potentially significant changes to the state’s graduation requirements. Rather than having ECAs count as the “graduation exam,” the bill would create a number of graduation pathways that the Indiana State Board of Education would flesh out. Options could include the SAT, ACT, industry certifications, or the ASVAB military entrance exam.

Test researchers who have come to speak to Indiana lawmakers have cautioned against such a move, as many of these measures were not designed to determine high school graduation.

While teacher evaluations would still be expected to include test scores in some way, the bill gives some flexibility to districts as to specifically how to incorporate them, said Rep. Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican and the bill’s author.

Currently, law says ISTEP scores must “significantly inform” evaluations, but districts use a wide range of percentages to fit that requirement.

You can find all of Chalkbeat’s testing coverage here.